|White Bearded Man, by Jacobo Tinoretto, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna|
Old Masters (1985)
by Thomas Bernhard
After reading one book by Thomas Bernhard, you largely know what to expect from the others: A narrator who 1) hates and misunderstands humanity 2) is obsessed with some sort of intellectual pursuit with no real world value 3) hates Austria and Austrian culture. So obsessed, misanthropic characters are Bernhard's stock in trade, and it is no wonder that he has managed to establish an international reputation, because, really, he's talking about serious readers.
Authors and novels which obliquely (or overtly) critique the culture of seirous readers are to the novel what knowing books about the movie industry are to Hollywood: popular enough with intensive consumers of the resulting cultural product to establish a distinct creative space, but not something that extends out into the wider world of the general, popular, audience. Put another way, Bernhard might be described as an "authors author." I think his nearest American analog would be Nicholson Baker but there is no doubt that the intensity of his hatred for modern life marks him apart, and that extremity is, again, probably why he has successfully found an international audience for his German language fiction.
Old Masters concerns two old men, Atzbacher and Reger, who have spent five hours, every other day for 30 years (Reger has, anyway) sitting in front of White Bearded Man, a painting by Italian artist Jacobo Tinoretto that is displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Atzbacher narrates Old Masters, which largely consists of Atzbacher remembering important events from Reger's life, notably the death of his wife. Interspersed with those musings are lengthy fulminations against "the modern state" and the "state sponsored artist." Both elements are well developed, as you would expect from Bernhard, but I found his material about the role of the state and the state-artist to be particularly clever. It's not a foreign subject for him. For example, Wittgenstein's Nephew considers a lengthy chapter involving the Bernhard/narrator figure disastrously receiving a state sponsored artistic prize, insulting the audience in his acceptance speech and causing the austrian arts minister to go storming out of the building.